Tag Archives: Olga Knipper

Anton Chekhov monument, Zvenigorod

Click on photos to enlarge.

On July 14, 1884, the 24 year-old Anton Chekhov wrote to his friend, the writer and editor Nikolai Leikin, “In front of my window there is a hill with pines, to the right there is a prisoner’s house, and further to the right there is a shabby little town, formerly a capital city…” The town he had in mind was Zvenigorod, where the monument you see pictured here was erected in 2010, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Chekhov’s birth.
Chekhov had an acid tongue and pen, and legion are the little and big towns and cities that bore the brunt of his sarcasm over the years. No small effort has been spent in most of those places to find later comments that might lead us to think that the good doctor’s caustic comments weren’t as bad as they seemed, or were later overturned by other, softer opinions. That’s true in the case of Zvenigorod, where most of the texts about Chekhov’s few months here go on to quote him much later in life when he even expressed the wish to his future wife Olga Knipper that they could marry in Zvenigorod. According to an anonymous piece on Chekhov in Zvenigorod in the internet, Chekhov in 1901 wrote to his future bride, “”It really was quite nice in Zvenigorod, I worked there in the hospital once… it would be nice not to go home from the church, but to go directly to Zvenigorod, or get married in Zvenigorod.”
It’s true that Zvenigorod was an important, if brief, way-station for the new doctor and future writer. It was here, just following his graduation from the school of medicine at Moscow University, that he first practiced medicine professionally. There was only one doctor in the city and it was his duty, when leaving on vacation, to find a replacement for his time of absence. Chekhov was the choice, in this case. He spent two weeks as the temporary supervisor of the regional hospital in Zvenigorod, apparently seeing hundreds of patients and taking part in autopsies. It is considered that his stories “The Dead Body” and “The Investigator” published, respectively, in 1885 and 1887 in Petersburg Newspaper under the pseudonym of A. Chekhonte, were inspired by his experiences here.
Zvenigorod has done a decent job keeping the memory of Chekhov alive. The house where he lived with his brother Ivan  on the Istra River is still standing. The hospital where he worked bears his name, and on the hospital grounds both a bust and a plaque commemorate his presence there. It is safe to say I will never again have the opportunity to find and photograph those items, so fans of Chekhov’s life in Zvenigorod will have to dig deeper than this to find information and images of them. My train of knowledge stops here.

This monument – relatively large once you find it, and quite elusive until you do – stands in a city square between Ukrainskaya and Moskovskaya Streets. It was done with an admirable degree of professionalism and affection by sculptor Vladimir Kurochkin. As his website shows, Kurochkin has done a number of sculptures on artistic themes (primarily Russian writers and Western painters), but the bulk of his public works – busts and monuments – has been devoted to military figures.
The Zvenigorod Chekhov is rather routine. Everything is in place, the dog, the walking cane, the pince nez, the goatee, the overcoat… everything you might expect to see in a likeness of Chekhov. The facial similarity meets our expectations, and – no small thing, I suspect, – the hands are sensitive and gentle. Another nice aspect is the bench on which Chekhov sits. It is part of the monument, so that visitors are encouraged to sit down with the great man on common ground and share some thoughts, or even give his dog a scratch behind its perky ears.
This is the “great” Chekhov here, not the young man who came to begin his career in medicine, but the famed and respected writer who apparently even considered buying a dacha in Zvenigorod in 1903, about a year before he died. He came back to visit the town with the potential purchase in mind, but nothing ever came of it. Perhaps that explains the somewhat blank look in his eyes?
If I’m coming across as underwhelmed in my response to this monument, it’s because I am. But I think the surroundings also have something to do with it. The park itself, for all its motley greenery, is quite faceless. Furthermore, Chekhov is shoved way off to the side for some reason. He is backed right up against a fence that cannot hide the nondescript contemporary city street right behind him. He’s not really part of either world – the modern city or the generic park.
Having said all that, however, I will admit that there is always something pleasant about being able to walk up to Anton Chekhov and sit down with him as if for a chat. It’s not the excitement, humor and intellectual stimulation you get from wandering around Leonty Usov’s brilliant monument in Tomsk, but it’ll do if you’re in Zvenigorod and in the need of some Chekhov.

 

Advertisements

Chekhov’s Little “House,” Melikhovo

Click on photos to enlarge.

IMG_0243 IMG_0245

This wonderfully funny little structure is ground zero for modern drama. It is the place on Anton Chekhov’s country estate in the village of Melikhovo where the dramatist wrote The Seagull, the first of his four major plays. The plaque on the front wall quotes Chekhov himself from the back of a photo that he sent to his future wife Olga Knipper on May 5, 1999. Chekhov’s original jottings say, “The outbuilding at Melikhovo. My house where The Seagull was written. With good memories to Olga Leonardovna Knipper.” The plaque reprints just the middle phrase.
We can “observe” the last few days of Chekhov’s work on the play by perusing his letters.
On November 14, 1895, he wrote to Dmitry Garin-Vinding, an actor and playwright then based at the Maly Theater in Moscow, “I have almost finished a play. There are about two days of work left. A comedy in four acts. It is called: The Seagull.
In fact, four days later, November 18, he writes to the singer and writer Yelena Shavrova-Yust, “I finished a play. It is called: The Seagull. It didn’t come out so hot. Speaking in general: I’m not much of a playwright.”
Three days hence, on November 21, he wrote to his friend the famed lawyer and literary dabbler Alexander Urusov: “Incidentally, yesterday I finished a new play that bears an avian name: The Seagull. A comedy in four acts. I will be in Moscow in December (the Grand Moscow Hotel) and, should you wish it, I will send you or bring you this play. I would be very, very happy if you would take upon yourself the labor of reading it. This labor will be somewhat eased because the play will be printed* and you will not need to make out my scribbly writing.” The asterisk to “will be printed” leads to Chekhov’s clarification below that the printing will be done “on a Remington.”
It was not until March 15, 1896, that Chekhov officially sent The Seagull to the authorities (the censor) in order to receive permission for his play to be performed on the imperial stages. Here is that formal request in full:

15 March 1896. Melikhovo.
To the Director of the Imperial theaters. 
A Petition
Of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov 

Presenting herewith a play of my composition under the title of The Seagull, in four acts, in two copies, I have the most humble honor of asking that it be submitted to the Theatrical-Literary Committee for permission to present it in the Imperial theaters. 

Anton Chekhov.
15 March 1896.
Lopasnya, Moscow Province.

Such is the modest, yet insistent beginning of a play that would change the way drama in the western world would be written, staged, acted and perceived for well over a century. Actually, for that hefty influence among playwrights let us add the name of Henrik Ibsen, whose plays, most written prior to Chekhov’s major works, were no less groundbreaking. But it has fallen to Chekhov, in part because of the impending partnership with Konstantin Stanislavsky, to be considered the founder of 20th century drama and theater.
The Seagull premiered at the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on October 17, 1896. This outing was a fiasco, however, with some members of the audience heaping vocal abuse on the actors, and ending with Chekhov famously skedaddling out of town before anyone could see or talk to him.
The renowned Russian film director Vitaly Melnikov made a wonderful, sensitive film about Chekhov in 2012 that includes numerous references to The Seagull. It’s called The Admirer. The first frames (and later ones too) show Stanislavsky rehearsing the play in the late 1890s, while the whole disaster at the Alexandrinsky is shown in detail later in the film. (In Melnikov’s interpretation a dastardly critic encourages a plant to begin the audience rebellion.) You can watch a decent online version on the Big Cinema site.  The scenes showing the first performance of The Seagull begin at approximately 1:01:00. (Unfortunately, this copy of the film does not include the English subtitles that I created for the director, but it does include the performance of my wife Oksana Mysina as an eccentric and haughty society lady who considers it her right to hound Mr. Chekhov.)
To round out the historical aspect of this post let me add that Stanislavsky’s rendition of The Seagull premiered in Moscow December 17, 1898. This was a production of the Moscow Art Theater, but it was not performed on the stage that the whole world now knows as the Art Theater. Stanislavsky’s homeless troupe performed on the stage of the Hermitage Theater in the Hermitage Garden for the first three years of its existence.

IMG_0259 IMG_0262 IMG_0267 IMG_0243 IMG_0256

The outbuilding in Melikhovo consists of just 20 square meters and two rooms, plus a mudroom or entryway. Chekhov kept his doctor’s medicines in this abbreviated front area and on days when he treated the local peasants (always for free), he ran a small red flag up the flag pole in front of the structure. (See photo immediately above.) A miniature widow’s walk, or balcony, was constructed over this part of the house, and it gave a nice three-way view of the surrounding territory. The building is located towards the back (the north end) of the Melikhovo property and is separated from the main house by a large garden, a grove and two lovely walkways. (See one of those in the following block of photos below.) The actual distance between the two houses is not large, but because of the layout of the land the writer’s retreat has a marvelous sense of seclusion to it – especially when the plants and trees are in full bloom.
Only rarely can visitors get inside the outbuilding any more, but I was fortunate a decade ago to spend quite a bit of time in there while making a small documentary film about Chekhov. The main part of the house is split into two narrow rooms. In the first there is just enough room for a large writing table and one chair on either side. In the second there is just enough room for a small single bed that stands along the back wall and runs almost the full length of the room. There is a night table next to the bed and a single functional wooden chair – to help you get your socks off or toss your shirt and pants over the back. Knowing a little about the way writing works, I suspect much of The Seagull was at least imagined, if not jotted down, here while Chekhov napped or rested between writing bouts.
A place like this always makes us answer hard questions. Is it capable of bringing up the ghost of him that made it famous? I won’t lie: the answer for me wavers between yes and no. When I stood before the desk and looked at the blotter and ink well, I didn’t see any letters from The Seagull, or any of the many other works he wrote here, rising into the air as smoke. In the little bedroom the clean white linens did not aid me in believing that I could see Chekhov’s long, hairy legs disappearing beneath them for a nap. But taken as a whole, this is a quite extraordinary little location on the map. The detail that went into the building of it (see the lacy carved wood in many of the photos), the modesty of the place, the comfortably cramped quarters, the presence of Dr. Chekhov’s glass vials still standing on two shelves in the entryway, the sense of isolation and retreat that everything here represents, combined with the richness and the beauty of the nature surrounding it all (even in the “dead” season) all adds up to more than a few tingles running down the spine.
There are a few places in Russia where I love to just stand and stare as my thoughts go where they will. This is one of them.

IMG_0254 IMG_0255 IMG_0258 IMG_0263 IMG_0270 IMG_4183 IMG_4184